What is your name and role at Together Project?
My name is Kate and I am a Co-Founder and current Chair of the steering committee for Together Project.
Tell us about your background and how you got involved as a founder.
I have been an entrepreneur and business owner for over 20 years, running and re-organizing versions of my company and playing in the sandboxes of the advertising and television industries. I am a Co-Founder and Managing Director of Tendril Design + Animation, a business based in Toronto and Sao Paulo. I have worked as a director on a few not-for-profit boards and have organized and supported fundraising efforts for numerous charities over the years.
In January 2015, a few friends were compelled to walk into the Super 8 Hotel in downtown Toronto to see if the Government Assisted Refugee (GAR) newcomers we’d heard had arrived there were doing ok. There was no plan for what we’d do next to help them, but we were determined and ready to try. I was representing many concerned Canadians on that day, having had our collective hearts broken by the Alan Kurdi story and the barrage of news about tragic voyages across the sea and images of exhausted families suffering through mass crossings to escape war. Canadians put our hands up and demanded to know how we could help. We had compassion, an eagerness to learn, and a desire to channel our enthusiasm to help.
Having joined a group to support a Privately Sponsored Refugee (PSR) family, we learned some of the rules of the road to work with refugees and we were well on our way to providing a welcoming environment for the family we were waiting for. Working as a (self-imposed) volunteer in the hotels with GAR’s led to an awareness of what felt like a two tiered system. The PSR family would be welcomed with open arms by 30 people, eager to become friends and support in any way possible. GAR’s could also be supported by willing and welcoming local communities, but these communities did not know where to start. Together Project was born when a group of us came together to leverage civil society to marry the goodwill of Canadians with the expertise and experience of researchers, social workers, and settlement experts.
Why is it important to foster social connection between volunteers and refugee newcomers in Canada?
When we think about the harm done to Canada’s first inhabitants, it is difficult to imagine living in a country where such atrocities can occur. Mistakes from the past need to be reconciled and turned in to meaningful actions for good, or we are doomed to repeat those mistakes. With that in mind and if we recognize that our well being is linked to the well being of others, our collective efforts to promote and encourage community building and a sense of belonging for newcomers and Canadians alike is critical to a positive, healthy future.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Together Project so far?
Our entire initiative was founded on building social bridges between newcomers and volunteers by bringing communities together. The most successful matches are the ones formed over hikes in a park or swims in a lake, over lunches and coffees, birthday parties and soccer matches. These opportunities allow for ‘in-between moments’ to happen, where real life unfolds. They are where the fabric of a social network is woven, and the building blocks of a successful future are laid. With COVID-19 all of this changed in what felt like a flash and with no time to prepare. For a brief moment we came to a grinding halt. How could we run training, a matching program and provide opportunities for community building while maintaining physical distancing? To add to the complexity, the language barriers and the very fact that new groups had not yet met in-person meant a first introduction and a nurturing of a new relationship felt impossible. Thanks to the innovative work of Co-Directors Anna and Andrew, we’ve been able to pivot to provide training and matching virtually. We are grateful to the volunteers and newcomers who are willing to try new ways of communicating in this current climate. There is so much heart for the work and now we have found a new way to allow worlds to collide and bridges to be built, strengthening an overall sense of compassion and understanding.
During the pandemic, why is it especially important to foster social connections between volunteers and Government-Assisted Refugees and refugee claimants in Canada?
At a time when we are being separated physically there is a heightened desire to show our humanity. Along with the word coronavirus, the word “caremongering” is now prevalent in our vocabulary. We’ve seen free online exercise classes, kids art classes, online religious services, free rooms for self-isolation, errand running for elderly neighbours, a show of solidarity with health workers with the nightly clanging of pots and pans, and companies shifting their manufacturing to mask making and hand sanitizer production. There is a real sense that we are accountable to each other, and I do think that these accelerated acts of kindness can position us to create the world we want to live in. Newcomers may be feeling particularly isolated due to COVID-19, especially if they are very new to Canada. They can’t explore their neighbourhoods or meet their neighbours. But they can meet with volunteers who care about their well-being, about inclusion, diversity, and the future. We are stronger together.
What are some of the ways in which volunteers are providing remote social support to refugee newcomers?
Volunteers and newcomers are using technology and online platforms to connect. If there is a language barrier, we line up a cultural ambassador who can act as interpreter to the conversation. Volunteers will spend time checking in to see how newcomers are managing at home in self-isolation. They can answer questions about anything, including COVID-19 and can refer to public health recommendations, online school expectations, and other services being provided. Mainly they can practice English and they can socialize!
What is your big dream for Together Project over the next five years?
In our first year, Together Project connected over 70 GAR families with volunteer Welcome Groups across Ontario. Today we are up to 130 families and over 600 volunteers, and have added refugee claimants as our newest population of constituents. We’ve been told we stand out as ambitious, both in terms of reach and scope, and the deepest in terms staff involvement, oversight, and management of match and support (workshops, manuals, community events). Still, there are more than 70 million displaced people in the world. Families are fleeing war torn or unlivable places in search of a peaceful existence. Being displaced from one’s home is not a choice, and as artist and activist Ai Weiwei has said, this is a “human crisis” not a “refugee crisis”. In the next five years, I dream that Together Project not only scales to become a national organization to support the wellbeing and integration of refugee newcomers across Canada, but that we continue to be seen as an example in the world of how to effectively build stronger communities filled with diverse, resilient, and compassionate citizens and that no one feels displaced and everyone feels like they belong.